Friday Royal Read: Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran

Most biographies of Elizabeth I describe her life from birth in 1533 to death in 1603, covering the events of her path to the throne and reign in chronological order. In Elizabeth I and Her Circle, Susan Doran, a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, co-editor of The Elizabethan World and Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives, and author of Mary Queen of Scots: An Illustrated Life and numerous books on Tudor England, instead devotes a chapter to each of the key relationships in the Queen’s life. Through analysis of Elizabeth I’s connections to her relatives, courtiers and councilors, Doran explodes the myths about the Queen’s character and reign, revealing the that England’s most famous ruler was a more complicated person than past biographers – and popular culture – have assumed.

Doran begins by reversing long standing assumptions about Elizabeth’s views of her parents, King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII is often described as a role model for his daughter and a person she idealized (For an example, listen to the recent BBC Great Lives episode on Elizabeth I) while the disgraced and beheaded Anne Boleyn was quietly forgotten. While Elizabeth I included Henry VIII in her public image to reinforce her legitimacy as queen, Doran argues convincingly that her surviving writings hint that she viewed her father as an intimidating and unpredictable figure during her childhood. Elizabeth displayed little grief when Henry died in 1547. In contrast, Elizabeth surrounded herself with Boleyn cousins during her reign, particularly the numerous members of the Carey and Knollys families, the descendants of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary.

In many biographies of Elizabeth I, the Queen’s relationships with her Tudor cousins are reduced to decades of conflict with Mary, Queen of Scots and outrage over the secret marriage of Lady Catherine Grey (sister of the famous 9 Days Queen, Lady Jane Grey). These selected episodes convey the impression that Elizabeth’s primary emotion toward her female cousins was jealousy, declaring Catherine’s sons illegitimate and comparing her own childlessness to Mary giving birth to a healthy son (the future James I). Elizabeth had far more relatives with a claim to her throne and more complicated dealings with her family than a narrow focus on Mary and Catherine would suggest.

Doran traces the careers of the entire Suffolk line (descendants of Henry VIII’s youngest sister), revealing that the Queen enjoyed decades of friendship with her cousin Margaret Clifford, the mother of numerous sons, which belies the assumption that she was inherently hostile to her female royal cousins and their progeny. Elizabeth even enjoyed a brief period of good relations with Mary, Queen of Scots. Doran provides evidence that Elizabeth’s decision to reject the legitimacy of Catherine’s marriage was partly motivated by a desire to reassure Mary about her place in the succession. The only close royal relative who does not receive substantial analysis in Doran’s book is Arbella Stuart, a curious omission considering that Elizabeth actually met her in person, in contrast to Mary and James.

Key chapters at the centre of the book are devoted to Elizabeth I’s “favourites,” Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sir Christopher Hatton and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Doran dismisses the speculation, which has existed since the sixteenth century and persists in films and historical novels today, that Elizabeth had affairs with these courtiers. Instead, the book discusses the political role of these men and takes them seriously as influential figures at the Queen’s court. The Earl of Essex, who is often dismissed as a vain and empty headed youth, in fact earned an MA from Cambridge at the age of sixteen and displayed a consistent desire to serve the Queen on the battlefield. The women in Elizabeth I’s circle have already received extensive analysis in the recent books The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court by Anna Whitelock and Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman but Doran provides some fresh insights and challenges the longstanding view that the Queen was inherently hostile to the marriages of her ladies-in-waiting.

Elizabeth I and Her Circle is essential reading for anyone interested in Queen Elizabeth I, her court and the wider Tudor dynasty in the sixteenth century. Doran strips away centuries of mythology surrounding Elizabeth I, revealing the interplay between her personal relations with family, courtiers and counselors and the political decisions she made as Queen. In her dealings with her circle, Elizabeth placed her interests as Queen above any personal rivalries or attachments. The Queen’s most lasting relationship was with England and her subjects.

Next Week: Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873) by Marin Soroka and Charles A. Ruud.

Friday Royal Read: Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of Henry VIII by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Lady Katherine Knollys lived her life at the centre of the Tudor court, her fortunes rising, falling and rising once more as different kings and queens succeeded to the throne. She was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, who had a quiet affair with Henry VIII that became known throughout Europe when Henry sought to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Mary’s younger sister, Anne Boleyn. When Henry VIII’s Roman Catholic daughter Mary I succeeded to the throne, Katherine and her husband, Sir Francis Knollys fled abroad to escape the persecution of Protestants. Once Elizabeth I became queen, Katherine was back in favour, serving as a Lady of the Bedchamber while Francis was appointed a Privy Councillor, captain of the guard, treasurer of the royal household, and guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots. The couple had 14 children and are ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin.

Katherine’s eventful life, shaped by the key political, religious and social changes of the 16th century has plenty of material for a biographer. For Sarah-Beth Watkins, however, Katherine is most interesting  because of the circumstances of her conception and birth. The book is boldly titled Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII without a question mark even though there is no definitive evidence regarding Katherine’s paternity.

Katherine was treated as a cousin rather than a sister by Elizabeth I and the resemblance to Henry VIII in the cover portrait may reflect the artist’s views on her parentage rather than her actual appearance. Even Watkins’s argument that Henry VIII ended his affairs once a child was born may be countered by speculation by Elizabeth Norton that Bessie Blount was the mother of two of the king’s children, a recognized son and an unacknowledged daughter. In contrast to how Henry VIII is portrayed in popular culture, such as The Tudors, the king conducted his early affairs with discretion. Under these circumstances, it’s unlikely that definitive evidence will emerge regarding whether Katherine’s father was Henry VIII or Mary Boleyn’s first husband, William Carey.

The emphasis on the circumstances of Katherine’s birth and childhood is at the expense of her later life. A single chapter is devoted to her service at Elizabeth I’s court. In recent years there has been an outpouring of books about Queen Elizabeth’s friendships including Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court by Anna Whitelock and the newly published Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran. Elizabeth expected to control the personal lives of ladies in waiting and those who married or left court without permission risked the queen’s wrath. Katherine managed to remain in the queen’s good graces and her service to the queen merits more attention in the book. Watkins also has little to say about Francis Knollys’ family background, which was as intertwined with Tudor court politics as Katherine’s own circumstances.

Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII is a clearly written, short introduction to the life of one of the most prominent women at the Tudor court. The book contains lengthy excerpts from correspondence and other documents related to Katherine’s life that serve as an introduction to the Tudors and their times. There are many other books, however, that provide a better sense of what it was like to serve in the household of Elizabeth I. The definitive biography of Lady Katherine Knollys is yet to be written.

 Next week: The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom by Nancy Goldstone

Friday Royal Read: Katharine of Aragon by Patrick Williams

King Henry VIII – a larger than life historical figure in every sense of the word – usually dominates biographies of his six wives. When Henry VIII is at the centre of events, the focus is usually on England with Europe and the wider world including successive Popes, Kings of France and rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor serving as a backdrop to the people and politics of the English court. This approach makes sense for Henry VIII’s 3rd, 5th and 6th wives, Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr as they never left England and owed their rise entirely to the King’s interest.

The lives of Henry VIII’s other 3 wives, however, were shaped directly by events in the rest of Europe as well as England. Anne Boleyn spent part of her childhood in France and the acknowledgement of King Francois I was crucial to her legitimacy as Henry VIII’s queen. Anne of Cleves was a German princess, raised amidst the conflict between the German states sparked by the Protestant Reformation.

Of all of Henry VIII’s wives, his first queen, Katharine of Aragon, made the greatest impact beyond England’s borders. As the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, her two successive English marriages were part of a broader Anglo-Spanish alliance. Henry VIII’s attempts to secure an annulment would become an multi-year international incident, encompassing France, the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain) and the Papacy. In Katharine of Aragon, Patrick Williams, Emeritus Professor of Spanish History at the University of Portsmouth and author of Philip II and The Great Favourite: The Duke of Lerma and the Court and Government of Philip III of Spain, 1598-1621 makes full use of Spanish archival material to present Henry VIII’s first wife in her full European context.

Williams’s biography of Katharine of Aragon is very much a life and times, discussing the political and religious events across Europe that affected Katharine in addition to Katharine herself. He covers corruption within the Papacy, the Protestant Reformation and the shortage of male heirs in many of Europe’s royal houses in the early sixteenth century. Of all of Henry VIII’s six wives, Katharine is the one who has been the subject of the greatest number of popular histories that place her in a European context. Julia Fox compared her life to that of her sister Queen Juana “la Loca” of Castile in Sister Queens , Catherine Fletcher examined the negotiations with the papacy regarding the annulment of Katharine’s marriage in The Divorce of Henry VIII and Giles Tremlett wrote of Katharine as The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII.

Williams’s book stands out from these other works because it focuses on three main events in Katharine’s life: the negotiation of her marriages, Henry VIII’s short lived alliance with Katharine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VIII’s quest for an annulment, which led to the break with Rome and establishment of the Church of England. Henry VIII is not always at the centre of events and does not marry Katharine until page 173 of 400 in the book. Instead, Katharine’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella and her nephew Charles V emerge as the key figures who helped to shape her destiny.

While Williams provides a fresh perspective on the key events of Katharine’s life, he rarely engages with recent historical debates concerning the other figures of the period. As far as Williams is concerned, Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower, Henry VII was one of England’s greatest kings and Katharine’s sister Juana la Loca was showing signs of mental illness from childhood. A more nuanced portrayal of these people would have enhanced the book. The idea that Juana was too insane to rule suited the political ambitions of her father Ferdinand of Aragon, husband Philip the Handsome and son Charles V. Their attitudes toward her mental health cannot be accepted at face value. The focus on international events also means that little time is devoted to Katharine’s network of support in England. Only two of her female friendships, with Henry VIII’s sister Mary and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, are discussed in any detail.

Katharine of Aragon was married to Henry VIII longer than his subsequent five wives put together and arguably knew him better than any other person in his life. This magisterial biography illuminates her full historical significance in both England and the rest of sixteenth century Europe. Katharine lived in a time of tremendous social, political and religious change and was always at centre of events as a princess and queen.

Next Week:  Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Friday Royal Read: The Children of Henry VIII by John Guy

 All three of King Henry VIII’s legitimate children reigned after him as King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, Henry VIII’s relationship with his six wives has received more attention than his influence over his children. In The Children of Henry VIII, John Guy, one of the leading scholars of the Tudor period and author of Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart and the Penguin Monarchs biography of Henry VIII looks at how Henry VIII’s marriages, politics and personality shaped his children and the monarchs they would become.

Guy provides fresh insights about the intimate world of the Tudor dynasty from Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1509 to the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. Henry VIII had six wives and numerous mistresses yet only four acknowledged children survived to adulthood: one child from each of his first three marriages and a single illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. Tudor medical history is therefore at centre of The Children of Henry VIII as Guy discusses the conditions that may have shaped Henry VIII’s family and the course of English history. Guy speculates that Henry VIII’s elder brother (and Catherine of Aragon’s first husband) may have died of testicular cancer, which prevented the consummation of the marriage. Guy also discusses whether Henry VIII had a rare genetic condition that precluded fathering more than one healthy child with each of his wives and mistresses.

The question of how royal children should be raised and educated in sixteenth century England is also discussed throughout Guy’s work. Perhaps because there were so few royal children in the Tudor dynasty, Henry VIII’s wives were often eager to take an active role in childrearing that was unusual for a queen consort. Catherine of Aragon corrected her daughter Mary’s latin exercises, Anne Boleyn lavished attention and presents on her daughter Elizabeth and Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, took an active interest in the upbringing and education of her younger stepchildren. While Henry VIII was an unpredictable father, alternating between lavishing attention on Mary, Elizabeth and Henry Fitzroy and ignoring them depending on the state of his marriages, their mothers took a strong interest in them.

Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy is little known today because he died in 1536 at the age of only seventeen and therefore did not play a role in the succession after Henry VIII’s death. Guy restores Henry Fitzroy to his proper place in history, discussing how he was a direct threat to the succession prospects of the future Mary I during Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII feared that female succession would destabilize England and explored the possibility of making his illegitimate son his heir. At a time when the laws of succession were still relatively flexible Guy explains, “Who was king, constitutionally, was a question of whom Parliament would recognize as king..” Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn did not only diminish Mary’s prospects but the place of Henry Fitzroy, who was suddenly ignored by his father and distrusted by the new queen.

Guy provides a detailed analysis of the four acknowledged children of Henry VIII: Mary I, Henry Fitzroy, Elizabeth I and Edward VI but there is no discussion of whether Henry had further children who were not publicly acknowledged beyond a dismissal of rumors surrounding his mistress Mary Boleyn’s son, Henry Carey. There were numerous other alleged illegitimate children of Henry VIII including Mary Boleyn’s daughter, Catherine Carey, Henry Fitzroy’s younger sister and an obscure young woman named Ethelreda Malte. Guy’s theories about Henry VIII’s medical history and attitudes toward his children are relevant to the question of how many children were fathered by the king and the book could have included a chapter analyzing the speculation surrounding Catherine Carey, Ethelreda Malte and others.

The Children of Henry VIII is an engaging and thought provoking account of the changing fortunes of Henry VIII’s children. Only the king’s sole legitimate son, the future Edward VI, enjoyed the consistent attention of his father. Mary, Elizabeth and Henry Fitzroy alternated between being showered with honours and almost entirely ignored.  Henry VIII’s treatment of his children shaped their relations with one another and the monarchs that three of them would become.

Next week: Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

CTV News Channel Interview: The Reburial of Richard III

The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III

The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III

Richard III will be reburied in Leicester Cathedral on March 26, after months of debate concerning both his final resting place and the plans for the ceremony. On the CTV news channel, I discussed Richard III’s contentious reputation from Shakespeare to modern times, the controversy surrounding the funeral plans and what Richard III himself might have thought of the arrangements.

Click here to watch the interview, “Reburial of an English King” on the CTV news channel.

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber: Sunday December 21 at 8pm ET on PBS

Lucy Worsley When Victoria became Queen in 1837, she shut the door of the royal bedchamber to the public. The government officials who traditionally attended royal births were relegated to the adjoining room while only the Queen’s consort, Prince Albert, and medical staff were permitted in the bedchamber for the arrival of the royal children. The Queen observed a strict separation between her public life and her domestic life. In Tales from the Royal Bedchamber,  Dr. Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, reveals that the monarch’s bedchamber was a ceremonial space in Tudor and Stuart times where proximity to the monarch meant proximity to political power.

Worsley presents the history of the English royal bedchamber with enthusiasm and energy. She climbs into beds to test just how comfortable they were, showing that it was impossible to lie entirely flat on a hammock-like, collapsible  medieval royal bed frame. She also tries her hand at silk weaving. Sitting on the edge of royal beds, Worsley has interesting discussions about royal marriage, mistresses and childbearing with a broad range of fellow curators, historians and authors such as Anna Whitelock, Tracy Borman and Helen Rappaport.

Perhaps the most engaging part of the documentary is Worsley’s description of the rumours that the son of James II and Mary of Modena, born in 1688, was a “warming pan baby” smuggled into the Queen’s bed to replace a stillborn child. Worsley shows viewers a warming pan, an early form of hot water bottle that was too small to hold a baby,  draws the supposed route the warming pan took through state rooms to the royal bedchamber and describes the crowd that witnessed the actual birth. The warming pan baby story was a convenient fiction to justify the Glorious Revolution&accession of William III and Mary II.

Since Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, much of the documentary is filmed in royal bedchambers of the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Kensington Palace. There is also a visit to the Isle of Wight to view the memorial to Queen Victoria in the private bedchamber where she died at Osborne House. If the program were longer, a trip across the channel to Versailles would have shown the origins of certain late seventeenth century English court practices. It is no coincidence that the late Stuart monarchs commissioned elaborate state beds after the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. Charles II was first cousin to Louis XIV  and spent part of his exile in France, observing the elaborate ceremonies that took place when the King rose from his bed in the morning or retired in the evening.

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber is a look behind the royal bed curtains of centuries past. Before Queen Victoria shut the door, the whole court thought they had the right to know exactly what took place in the royal bed. The modern fascination with the private life of the royal family is as old as monarchy itself.

My latest Ottawa Citizen column: “The Queen’s reign doesn’t depend on Richard III’s DNA”

The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III

The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III

“The remains of King Richard III continue to yield new information about one of England’s most controversial kings and his family. DNA analysis reveals that Richard’s bones share mitochondrial DNA, which is passed through the female line with the Canadian Ibsen family, but there is no genetic match with his male line relatives. The release of these findings has prompted speculation about the Queen’s right to reign if there was a break in the main royal bloodline. The royal succession, however, was not always determined by seniority in the royal family….”

Click here to read the full column in the Ottawa Citizen: “The Queen’s Reign Doesn’t Depend on Richard III’s DNA”

Curious to learn more about the life and legacy of King Richard III? My University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies course “Richard III: Monstrous or Misunderstood?” begins January 7, 2015. Click here to register!

Will a New Royal Baby Decide the Future of Scotland?

Mary of Modena, consort of James II, with her son James, known as the warming pan baby or "the Old Pretender"

Mary of Modena, consort of James II, with her son James, known as “the warming pan baby “or “the Old Pretender”

My column in the Ottawa Citizen this week discusses the long history of Scotland’s independence being influenced by the arrival of a royal baby. Mary, Queen of Scots succeeded to throne at only six days old and speculation that James II’s son was a spurious, “warming pan baby” contributed to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and eventual Act of Union in 1707. With the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence on September 18, there is speculation in the British press that the announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will have a second child next year may influence Scottish voters to elect to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Click here to read “Will a New Royal Baby Decide the Future of Scotland?”

Royal Travelogue 5: Caernarfon Castle and the Princes of Wales

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle

In 1538, King Henry VIII of England received a report that Caernarfon Castle in Wales was “moche ruynous and ferre in decaye for lackke of tymely reparations.” With the Tudor dynasty on the throne, descendants of Henry V’s widow, Katherine of Valois and her Welsh steward, Owen Tudor, there was less need for fortifications to keep the English and Welsh apart, as a conquering Edward I intended in the late thirteenth century. By the reign of King James I (1603-1625), only the Eagle Tower and King’s Gate still had roofs and the buildings inside the castle were “all quite faln down to the ground and the Tymber and the rest of the materialls as Iron and Glasse carried away and nothing left that [is] valiable.”

The King's Gate

The King’s Gate

The magnificent ruins of Caernarfon Castle still bear the evidence of centuries of neglect. Reaching the top of the Well Tower, which once housed the the massive castle cistern, requires a long climb up a stone spiral staircase into the darkness above. The narrow steps are uneven from centuries of use and exposure to the elements. (The Well Tower was still unfinished in the 14th century and did not receive a roof until the 19th century restoration of the castle). There are ropes to assist visitors up the medieval steps to see Edward I’s view of the village of Caernarfon and waterfront. Once at the top, Edward I’s plans for his new castle become clear. There is space for an entire royal household in the turrets as well as massive fortifications designed to enforce England’s conquest of Wales.

In 1282, Llywelyn “the Last,” the final Welsh ruler from the House of Gwynedd died in battle against English forces. Edward I seized the opportunity for a complete conquest of Wales. The King sent Llywelyn’s only child, Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn, to a distant Lancashire convent and began construction of a series of castles around Wales. Edward I’s queen, Eleanor of Castile, accompanied the King on the 9th Crusade and she was also present for his occupation of Wales. In 1284, the royal couple’s son, the future Edward II, was born in Caernarfon during the construction of the Castle.

 

View of Caernarfon Castle from Eagles Tower

View of Caernarfon Castle from Eagles Tower

According to a legend dating from the 16th century, Edward I promised the Welsh a prince, “borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English,” beginning the practice of the King’s eldest son serving as Prince of Wales. While some of these Princes, including Henry VIII’s elder brother, Arthur, spent time in Wales learning the business of kingship, more than half of the “Princes of Wales” never visited Wales. Caernarfon Castle rarely served its intended purpose as a Welsh residence for the Prince of Wales. Instead, the castle became a local prison and storage facility for armaments, gradually falling into disrepair.

Statue of David Lloyd George in Caernarfon

Statue of David Lloyd George in Caernarfon

The castle returned to prominence in the 20th century when it became the site of investiture for Princes of Wales. In 1911, David Lloyd George, the future Prime Minister and member of parliament for Caernarfon Burroughs, was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he favoured  a Welsh investiture ceremony for the future Edward VIII as Prince of Wales. The ceremony, which took place in Caernarfon Castle, sped the restoration work.

In 1969, the current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, was also invested as Prince of Wales in the castle. In contrast to previous Princes of Wales, Charles made efforts to learn the language and customs of Wales before his investiture, completing part of his university education in Aberystwyth. The current royal family continues to maintain close links with the region.

Following their wedding in 2011, William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, resided in Anglesey while William worked as a Search and Rescue pilot. Edward I arrived in Wales as a conqueror but William and Catherine arrived as residents eager to blend into their surroundings, finding a degree of privacy and normalcy in the early years of their marriage. Caernarfon Castle is now a World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Wales.

Next: Cornet Castle in Guernsey, the last Royalist stronghold during the English Civil Wars

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen by Alison Weir (Review)

King Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, has emerged from the shadows. After decades of obscurity compared to her son’s six wives, Elizabeth is now the subject of popular biographies and historical novels alike including Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen by Amy License and The White Princess by Philippa Gregory. The England of Elizabeth’s lifetime has also captured the public’s imagination. The recent discovery of the remains of Elizabeth’s uncle, Richard III, has revived interest in the Battle of Bosworth Field where her future husband, Henry Tudor seized the crown and founded a new dynasty that united the Houses of Lancaster and York. In Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, Alison Weir, author of sixteen medieval and Tudor biographies and five historical novels tells the story of the first Tudor Queen and her tumultuous times.

Elizabeth was popular in her own lifetime and idealized by Victorian biographers because she appeared to be the ideal Tudor wife, mother and queen consort, providing quiet support and legitimacy for Henry VII’s rule. While source material concerning Elizabeth’s life, particularly before her marriage, is frustratingly incomplete compared to her more famous children and grandchildren, Weir emphasizes evidence that she exerted influence over her family and court. The “Song of Lady Bessy” imagined her actively plotting to place Henry Tudor on the throne and secure their marriage. Her account books as queen reveal her extensive charitable activities and court patronage. Elizabeth also worked with her powerful mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, to influence Henry VII’s policies, particularly the dynastic marriages of her children. There are a few places where speculation is presented as fact, most notably Weir’s controversial view that Elizabeth “was actively pushing” for a marriage to her uncle, Richard III, but most of the analysis of Elizabeth’s character is clearly supported by surviving source material.

In additional to revealing Elizabeth’s full role at the Tudor court, Weir provides an evocative portrait of her world. Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, imitated the sumptuous display of the Burgundian court and the young princess therefore grew up in an atmosphere of great luxury. At the same time, the political circumstances of the Wars of the Roses made her position precarious. She experienced two periods of sanctuary in Westminster Abbey and was declared illegitimate by Richard III before becoming Henry VII’s queen. The disappearance of Elizabeth’s brothers, the Princes in the Tower, remains a mystery to the present day. Weir is critical of revisionist interpretations of Richard III’s reign and blames him for the death of his nephews, summarizing convincing evidence from her previous book, The Princes in the Tower.

The second two thirds of the book is stronger than the first because there are more sources about Elizabeth’s time as a queen than a princess. The early chapters would benefit from a more thorough discussion of English attitudes toward female succession in the Middle Ages. Weir writes, “in the fifteenth century it would have been unthinkable for a woman to succeed to the throne” but there had actually been plenty of debate about women’s succession rights. William the Conqueror’s granddaughter, Matilda, briefly held power in 1141, during a Civil War with her cousin, King Stephen.

England explicitly upheld women’s succession rights during the reign of Edward III when a proposal to introduce a Salic law was defeated by parliament. The Wars of Roses resulted in both men and women losing succession rights that they would have enjoyed in peacetime. Outside England, there were prominent examples of female rulers in the fifteenth century including Queen Isabella of Castile and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy. A key reason why Henry Tudor was determined to marry Elizabeth, and there was speculation that Richard III contemplated marrying his niece, was because she was a rival claimant to the throne.

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen is a well written and interesting portrait of Elizabeth of York’s life and times. Weir captures the unique circumstances of Elizabeth’s world, which combined sumptuous display and deadly political intrigue. Greater attention to the medieval English debate over female succession would have made the narrative stronger, demonstrating how Elizabeth’s granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I were able to establish themselves as England’s first undisputed female rulers.